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(BPT) - Bullying is a tough reality for many children. One out of every four students reports being bullied during the school year, according to the National Center for Educating Statistics. But the news gets worse. Studies show that children who have disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their peers who don’t have disabilities. It’s a good time to remind parents, students and teachers about bullying awareness — especially among children who have disabilities — because October is Bullying Prevention Month.
“Kids who have disabilities are working their hardest to excel at school and socialize with peers while juggling the challenges of having a disability,” says Scott Schwantes, MD, a Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare pediatrician. “The last thing they need is to be targeted by bullies.”
There are many positive ways for kids who don’t have disabilities to approach their peers who do. One example is to let kids know that, “It’s Okay to Ask!” The concept is illustrated in the Gillette-authored children’s book.
“It’s Okay to Ask!” tells the story of five children who have disabilities or complex medical conditions. They encounter kids who ask questions — about their leg braces, communication devices, motorized wheelchairs and adaptive bikes. The children respond directly and kindly. Talk then turns to the important topics of childhood, like dancing, books, adventure and silly jokes. The book is a guide for redirecting conversations and focusing on the things we all have in common.
If kids who have disabilities are being bullied, Schwantes says these general strategies may help:
Take charge. Your child can’t control the teasers, but can control how they react. Advise your child not to engage with the teasers. Ignoring teasing may make it worse for a while, but usually when bullies don’t get a reaction, they don’t find teasing “fun.”
Stay calm. Kids who tease want to see that they’re bothering their victims. Encourage your child to take deep breaths or count to 10.
Reject the teasing. Just because someone says something in a loud voice doesn’t mean your child has to accept it. Tell your child to think of the words as rubber balls that bounce off them, or to imagine they have a shield that deflects mean words.
Ask, “So?” It’s a way of saying that teasing doesn’t matter. If your child sends the message that they aren’t scared or bothered, the bully might back off.
Stay in a group. Bullies tend to pick on kids who are alone. Encourage your child to stay away from kids who tease, if possible, and to find people with similar interests. Having even one good, supportive friend can help.
Play it safe. Emphasize that it’s OK to ask for help. If your child has told the teaser to stop and the teasing continues, worsens or becomes physical, they should tell an adult right away.
When bullied, children are at increased risk for academic problems, substance use and violent behavior later in life, according to PACER — a national nonprofit dedicated to training and education for families of children and youth who have disabilities. And kids who receive special education are told almost twice as often as other youth not to tattle.
During the past decade, much has been done to curb bullying in schools. In Minnesota, for example, a Safe and Supportive Schools Act went into effect in 2014. The law requires school districts to investigate and track cases of bullying and to better train teachers and school staff on ways to prevent bullying.
The statistics show more work needs to be done and parents are often the best resource to help their children navigate this emotional and sometimes dangerous issue.
PACER encourages people to show their commitment to preventing bullying by wearing orange on Unity Day, Wednesday, Oct. 19. Organizers hope bright orange clothing sends a message that you care about people’s physical and emotional heath and that bullying is no longer accepted in this society.